The other day I was chatting with some of the SB Nation bloggers about the USL, and I posed what I thought was a very simple question - "What is the model USL club and why?" It turns out it's not as simple as picking which club is the best and saying "This is the model to follow." Part of that has to do with the fact that each of the clubs have different setups to achieve different goals.
Let's start with a basic overview. USL clubs fall into three categories, and depending on which category the club falls in the clubs will have different objectives. First, you have independent clubs like Sacramento Republic FC. Those clubs operate much like MLS clubs - they look to sign the best talent they can and win games. Developing players is secondary to these clubs - while they may field youth teams, there's not usually a direct link between youth team and USL club. Second, you have affiliate clubs like Harrisburg City Islanders. These clubs have agreements with MLS clubs where players are loaned from the MLS club (and can be recalled at any time), however the USL club still has its own players and objectives. Developing players is secondary - unless you're an MLS player whose sole reason for being there is development. Third are the MLS-owned and operated clubs - the "2" clubs like Toronto FC II. These clubs exist solely to serve the MLS club by developing players. Winning the league is great, but most clubs want to have a place to allow young talent to get professional minutes and work with coaches to continue developing out of college or the club's youth academy. Each type of club measures itself to those basic tenets depending on what kind of club they are. In the case of the Philadelphia Union's yet-to-be-named affiliate that we'll refer to as "U2" (we all know that Bethlehem Steel will be the name, but since it's not official yet just humor us), they're going to be that third category of team. Winning and losing shouldn't matter as much as developing young players to hopefully prepare them to play at the MLS level.
According to Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart, the model independent club was Sacramento Republic FC, the model affiliate club was the Rochester Rhinos, and the model "2" club was LA Galaxy II. When I asked why LA2 is the model since that's what U2 will be, Clark said "They win, a lot. They develop talent that's capable of making MLS roster, they play some academy kids and they have a few direct signings from their academy." And that's really the epitome of what U2 should be - a place for current and former Academy players and draft picks to get professional experience and develop their craft.
Dave Rowaan of Waking the Red said that Toronto FC II and FC Montreal (the Montreal Impact's USL club) were examples of what not to do with a USL club. "Avoid going to young like Toronto and Montreal did. (You) need some veterans in the mix." he told me, however Aaron Bauer of Once A Metro pointed out that Toronto and Montreal were "Just doing things differently. They are purposely trying to give guys who are 18-23 as much professional experience as possible. At the end of the day, it depends on what you want out of your USL team. Rochester and he MLS 2 teams have different ambitions."
Bauer continued "At the end of the day MLS 2 teams come down to player development. How you develop that talent is important. So you need a good coaching staff that is on the same page with the rest of the organization. NYRB II I think was incredibly successful this season, because they integrated both academy players, former academy players that couldn't catch on in MLS, USL signings, and MLS players loaned down to get experience in the system that the first team played. Guys would go down and not miss a beat and re-integrate back into the MLS squad. That takes a really committed team. As for LA, you saw the same thing. They loaned players from USL to MLS (in a controversial way, that will probably be changed) and then signed them, showing the fluidity in another dimension. Winning in USL doesn't really matter for these clubs, but it helps (especially giving guys playoff experience). It just comes down to developing talent for the MLS team in anyway, and making sure talent from your organization as a giant umbrella isn't lost (even though it will be)."
Rowaan went on to say"TFC II had one big issue and that was the first team shuttling guys back and forth way too much. The top prospects did not get consistent minutes at either level and I think their development suffered because of it." This of concern to fans of the Union, who saw a team ravaged by injuries and poor performances. It would be very easy to constantly have someone ping-pong between
Bethlehem the Lehigh Valley and Chester, and while it may provide short-term benefits to the Union it could ultimately be a detriment to the player's development - and this is assuming that there will be open communications between the Union and U2. This isn't always the case, although examples of miscommunication (such as an anecdote about an MLS club sending a player out to an affiliate unannounced so that when the player drove two-plus hours to the affiliate they had no idea he was coming) come more from affiliate clubs than the "2" clubs. Rowaan did go on to say that "For some other young guys this year was huge though. So a few wins and a few losses in their approach. I talk to a lot of the team on a regular basis though and most are excited about how things went this year" The benefit of this approach is that the young players got to play minutes in both a USL and an MLS environment. Giving young players a taste of playing for the main club is a great incentive for them to work hard to come back or even maintain a spot.
It will be interesting to see if the Union look to field a team that has a mix of veterans and youth, or a team that is all youth. Both seem to have their benefits and drawbacks. Which model do you think the Union will follow? Which would you prefer they follow? Let us know in the comments section below!